I had previously taught in a pretty little Victorian school in the leafy, suburban commuter-belt of Surrey. It was a typical Victorian village school, obviously old but very well kept; everything about it and its surroundings was comfortable and attractive. So it was quite a tricky transition when I moved to a large, rather drab ‘modern’ school, with a catchment area mostly consisting of a huge council estate. Lots of concrete and a generally dreary and yes, drab environment. The pupils were very different too. It took me a while to adjust to the fact that it was the norm for nine-year-old girls to wear nail varnish and earrings in school and to hearing tales of mothers running off with the milkman!
But the headmaster, a Welshman, was in a way, a light in the wilderness! There is a saying that the Welsh are all ‘teachers or preachers’ and Mr F. was a bit of both.
Away from the children, he had some of that typically Welsh gloom that underlies their famous sense of humour. He was often to be found lurking in the stock cupboard, where he would complain endlessly about his chronic sinus condition – ‘a tight band around my forehead!’, seeking sympathy from anyone who popped in to pick up some supplies. One of his more annoying habits was to appear in our classrooms about ten minutes after the children had all left, with his coat and hat on, obviously all ready to leave, asking, ‘Haven’t you people got homes to go to?’, knowing full well that we, the teachers, had several long hours of work still ahead of us.
So we were not fully appreciative when he addressed the children in assembly, extolling the ‘carpets of gold’ which very few of them would ever have seen!
Another of our Headmaster's pet phrases for use in assemblies was ‘the magic and music of poetry’! And it could be extremely irritating when he insisted that all written work that was put on display must be decorated with a coloured border. In fact, no work written on sheets of paper, was considered complete without its decorative border.
At the time, I think most of us seriously questioned the value of all this ornamentation. But looking back, when I met up with one of the teachers not so long ago, we agreed that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all. The children, few of whom would go on to shine academically, certainly learnt to take a pride in the appearance of their work, if nothing else. And the brightly decorated classrooms might have given them a glimpse of an environment rather different from that drabness that otherwise surrounded them.
Whether the ‘music and magic’ of poetry – or was it ‘magic and music’? - made any impact on them, I really can’t say but what else can you expect from a Welshman?